The Federal Bureau of Investigation tracks gun sales and publishes a list of how many are handled as part of its National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). Each month, the figures are reported by state. Nearly everyone put through this system qualifies as a buyer. People who are excluded usually have criminal records. Of the more than 300 million checks that have been done since 1998, there have only been 1.5 million denials. Therefore, the data is the best proxy for U.S. gun sales available.
Gun sales have soared in the past year. They have reached 35,758,249 through November. That is more than the 28,369,750 for all of last year. Growing civil unrest may have prompted people to buy guns for personal and family protection. Another theory is that chaos brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic is a major cause. A new UC Davis School of Medicine study about fear of violence reports: “The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated persistent structural, economic, and social inequities in the conditions that contribute to violence and its consequences.”
Who is buying these guns? A New York Times analysis shows that buyers cut across almost all demographic groups. Gun ownership has continued to be a flashpoint across the country, as the debate about who should own a gun and what kind of guns should be lawful continues, as it has for decades.
The rise in gun sales from 2019 to 2020 is not an anomaly. The number of gun sales has increased most years since 1999. At the current pace, 2020 sales will reach well over 35 million. Sales first topped 25 million in 2016, 20 million in 2013, 15 million in 2011, and 10 million in 2006. The first full year the FBI kept data was 1999 when sales were 9,138,123.
During the week of March 16 to March 22, gun sales hit 1,197,788 according to FBI background check statistics. This is higher than sales in either Michigan or New York for the entire first 11 months of this year.
It is not likely that this surge coincided with the period when it was clear that the COVID-19 pandemic had begun its aggressive spread across America. It was the first week that new cases in the U.S. reached 100,000. While that number seems modest today, there had been almost no cases reported in America two weeks earlier. The fatal case count began to pick up at this time, and the media started to report on the disaster.